Kids Health

How to control your child’s thumb sucking habit

Persistent, vigorous thumb-sucking can sometimes cause misalignment of your child’s permanent teeth and affect the jaw or the shape and roof of the mouth.

By Dr Reshma Shah

Thumb-sucking or finger-sucking is a habit that occurs with many infants. Your child will usually give it up naturally by the age of four. If the sucking habit continues beyond the time when permanent teeth start to erupt, your child may develop crooked teeth and a malformed palate (roof of the mouth). This results from pressure applied by the thumb on the teeth and roof of the mouth. The severity of the problem depends on frequency, intensity, duration and also the position in which the thumb is placed in the mouth. The relationship between the upper and lower jaws may also be affected. Speech defects can occur from mal-aligned teeth resulting from thumb-sucking and/or finger-sucking.

All children should start regular dental visits when they turn a year old. If later you notice that your child’s front teeth are jutting out or your child seems to have a problem with their bite, talk to a paediatric dentist about your concerns.

Your child’s permanent teeth will not start coming till they are six years old. However, damage done to their mouths before that may or may not correct itself. For that reason, it’s a good idea to talk to a dentist sooner rather than later, if you are concerned.

Does thumb-sucking damage teeth?

Not all thumb-sucking results in damage to the teeth or mouth. For example, passively holding the thumb in the mouth doesn’t typically cause damage. However, active thumb-sucking with a lot of motion can cause damage to primary (baby) teeth, though this usually corrects itself as the permanent teeth come up. Persistent, vigorous thumb-sucking can sometimes cause misalignment of your child’s permanent teeth and affect the jaw or the shape and roof of the mouth. Thumb-sucking may also expose your child to dirt, bacteria and viruses.


The best prevention is to get your newborn to take up the pacifier instead of thumb-sucking or finger-sucking. (Although prolonged use of the pacifier can lead to similar problems, it is at least, not attached to the child and can be removed).

Children should be helped to give up the habit before they enter school to prevent teasing. Timing of the treatment is important. Your child should be willing to give up thumb-sucking or finger-sucking. If your child is not willing to stop, therapy is not usually indicated. The pressure you apply to stop may only lead to resistance and lack of cooperation. Try again later.

Give your child attention and understanding and gently discourage the habit. Reminders, such as a band-aid on the thumb, can help.

Offer rewards—star on a chart, extra story time—for days when your child is successful. Praise your child when successful.

After daytime sucking is controlled:

Help your child to give up the sucking habit during sleep. This is usually an involuntary process and a glove, sock, or thumb/finger guard can help stop the habit.

Take one step at a time. Encourage your child not to suck during one daytime activity, like storytime or television watching. Gradually add another activity until daytime sucking is controlled.

If these considerations are not successful, see your dental professional for further support.

(The writer is a paediatric dentist at 32 Reasons.)

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